IRL: Indy500: Al Unser Jr. Ready to Write New Chapter of Success

INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, May 13, 2000 -- The “doctor” finally has come calling to help Al Unser Jr. But this doctor doesn’t wear whites or carry a stethoscope. In fact, it isn’t even human. It’s a 2½-mile racetrack known...

INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, May 13, 2000 -- The “doctor” finally has come calling to help Al Unser Jr. But this doctor doesn’t wear whites or carry a stethoscope. In fact, it isn’t even human. It’s a 2½-mile racetrack known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Unser, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, has suffered from a malady known as “NoIndyitis” for the past five years. Its symptoms are a constant longing to return to Victory Lane in the greatest automobile race in the world. The healing began for Unser when he left the Roger Penske team in CART last fall and signed to drive once again for Rick Galles in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series in 2000. His recovery received a big boost April 22 when he won the Vegas Indy 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his first open-wheel win since 1995. A few days after the Vegas victory, another key step came when Unser practiced at the Speedway once more. And this weekend, he’ll have a full, and hopefully speedy, recovery when he starts practice for the 84th Indianapolis 500. “The hole is filled up,” Unser said Thursday upon his arrival in Indianapolis to prepare for the official opening of the Speedway May 13. “It started this morning when I woke up. I had goose bumps. “The theme (of the annual 500 Festival Parade) is “Back Home Again (in Indiana). I’m back home again.” The recovery will be complete when he qualifies next weekend for the 84th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 28. “I’m really excited,” Unser said. “I’m going to be able to go back and hold my head high.” Unser said he isn’t taking anything for granted until he’s safely qualified for the 33-car starting field following the end of qualifications at 6 p.m. on May 21, MBNA Bump Day. He knows what it’s like not to make the field. “My last memory was of missing the race,” he said. That was in 1995. He was both the defending PPG Pole winner and race winner from 1994. He became the first driver carrying such high credentials to fail to qualify the next year. His last run in a Roger Penske car late on Bump Day was too slow. Then Team Penske and Unser didn’t race at Indy from 1996-99. “The emotions are big,” he said about his return. “It’s almost like I’m a rookie all over again. It’s a brand-new era. It’s been difficult. I’m sure happy that chapter in my life is closed. I’m ready to start a new one.” The pressure on Unser probably is greater than most drivers. He comes from the most famous family in open-wheel racing. His father, who now is a driver coach/consultant for the Indy Racing Northern Light Series, won the race four times. His Uncle Bobby won it three times. Cousins Robby and Johnny will try to qualify for the race, too. “My dad is a legend,” Unser said. “To equal what he has done in his career is a dream. There is pressure from the family of ‘when are you going to win?’ I’m going back with a clean slate.” The victory at Las Vegas took care of that. The Unser legend stretches back to 1940 when Louie Unser came to the Speedway and took an incomplete driver’s test. Jerry Unser, brother of Bobby and Al, was first to make the race in 1958, but was fatally injured during practice the following year. Bobby arrived in 1963 and won in 1968, 1975 and 1981. Al Sr. was part of the talented 1965 rookie class, won back-to-back races in 1970-71 (no one has done that since) and two additional races in 1978 and 1987. Al Jr. joined his father in the field in 1983, winning in 1992 and 1994. Johnny Unser, son of Jerry, qualified for the first time in 1996. Robby, son of Bobby, made the field for the first time in 1998. All told, the Unser family has driven 9,812 laps in the race for a total of 24,530 miles. That equals the distance around the earth at the equator. Add in practice and qualifying laps, and it might reach the moon. Unser admits he’s on a mission. But it’s not to pick up his third victory. “The mission I have is making the show,” he said. “I didn’t think it was possible that I could miss the show here, with all the years we tried and winning the race twice and all that stuff.” Unser remembers talking to his father in 1995 about how he was scuffing in race tires and running race setups during practice. The elder Unser warned his son that he had better concern himself with making the race first. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah, no problem,’” Unser said. “And lo and behold, Emerson (Fittipaldi) and I didn’t make it. The mission right now is to make the show.” Unser, 38, from Albuquerque, N.M., is reunited with his hometown car owner Galles. Together, they won the 1990 CART championship and the 1992 Indianapolis 500. They then separated as Unser moved on to the Penske team and earned a second Indy victory in 1994. Unser and Galles made their debut in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series at Orlando, Fla., where he finished 25th in his Galles ECR Racing Starz Encore Superpak G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone. He advanced to ninth at Phoenix, leading 22 laps. Then at Las Vegas he charged up from 21st place to be in position to snatch the lead when the early front-runners fell out. He led 20 laps, including the decisive final 12. Unser and Galles have a special relationship that adds up to success for both. “I had to make a commitment to Al to bring this thing forward,” Galles said. “We wanted Al back. I knew Al could lead us to some more wins, and potentially try to win a championship. “Al and I share the same philosophy that nobody is bigger than the team. We started together when he was 17 and grew up together.” They also were born on the same day - April 19. Galles is 55. Unser’s victory at Vegas leapfrogged him from a tie for 15th in the series standings to fourth. Now he wants to move forward in his qualifying effort at Indianapolis. In the first three races he started 25th, 20th and 21st. Winners of the first three Indy Racing events all came from farther back than 20th. “A goal of ours is to try to qualify better,” he said. “We need to qualify up front and show that guys up front do win races.”


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Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Johnny Unser , Roger Penske
Teams Team Penske